Although New York and London are generally credited with spawning what came to be known as punk rock, this Cleveland contingent has a fairly good claim to planting many of its seeds in the early ’70s. Born from the ashes of Rocket From the Tombs (a band that also produced the Dead Boys), the nascent six-piece Pere Ubu began tinkering with its avant-garage sound — a polyhedral hybrid of Detroit- styled guitar squall, kraut-rock drone and, perhaps most important, the death knells of Cleveland’s collapsing industrial infrastructure — in the summer of 1975, self-releasing “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” one of the first indie singles of the punk era, by year’s end.
In its first incarnation, Ubu combined disorienting, often dissonant, rock and urban blues in a stunningly original and outlandish mix, but never lost an urgent, joyous party atmosphere. Lead singer David Thomas’ plebeian warble, the band’s most noticeable sonic feature, colors all of Ubu’s proceedings in a bizarre light; casual listeners might, as a result, overlook the powerful, polished musicianship. One of the most innovative American musical forces, Pere Ubu is to Devo what Arnold Schoenberg was to Irving Berlin.
With its debut album, The Modern Dance, Pere Ubu engineered a dauntingly seamless coupling of arty introspection and old-school garage-rock squall. Frontman David Thomas uses his bizarro-world warble to yelp out fusillades of angst (“Life Stinks”) and spin dreamworld visions (“Sentimental Journey”) that ultimately proved far darker and more challenging than any three-chord ranters operating at the time. It includes two songs remade from early 45s that Pere Ubu had released on its Hearthan label (when Thomas was calling himself Crocus Behemoth and the late Peter Laughner was one of the sextet’s guitarists and main songwriters). The British Datapanik in the Year Zero catching-up compilation is more successful, collecting five of the original Hearthan (aka Hearpen) tracks, including the dynamic, paranoiac “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” and the Seeds-gone-dada “Cloud 149.” Dark, challenging material.
The spectacular Dub Housing accentuates the more amorphous qualities of the band’s sound, drawing heavily on synthesizer player Allen Ravenstine’s utterly original soundscaping ability. Songs like “Codex,” “Caligari’s Mirror” and the ominous title track conjure up images straight out of art-house psychological horror films like Carnival of Souls. Simply one of the most important post-punk recordings. New Picnic Time is significantly less riveting: guitarist Tom Herman, who was largely responsible for the foreboding atmospherics of the band’s earlier albums, strafes against the whimsical, lighthearted structures of songs like “The Fabulous Sequel” and “Small Was Fast,” while Thomas’ increasingly eschatological observations (reflecting his longtime faith as a Jehovah’s Witness) grow more and more unsettling. The lack of communication between members was reflected in Herman’s subsequent departure (to form the more aggro Tripod Jimmie) and the recruitment of dada-minded instigator Mayo Thompson (with whose Red Crayola a few Ubu-ites had recorded) as a replacement.
Ubu shifted to a brighter, more open sound and a deformed blues ethic on New Picnic Time. Still bearing an air of disaster, Thomas’ lyrics develop story-songs that increasingly focus on common elements of everyday life, drawing more in line with his strong religious (Jehovah’s Witness) beliefs. A bizarre album that is more than a little reminiscent of Captain Beefheart. In 1979, Herman left and Red Crayola guitarist/leader Mayo Thompson joined.
It didn’t take Thomas and Thompson long to develop a common language, as evidenced by the ditzy-but-compelling aura of The Art of Walking, rife as it is with hymns of praise to life’s mundane moments. Like a fourth- dimensional doppelgänger for Jonathan Richman, Thomas warbles his thoughts on “Birdies” and “Arabia” (with hastily scribbled lyrics appended to what was originally intended to be an instrumental), while Thompson paints the landscapes in dazzlingly shiny — if occasionally unnatural — colors. The live 390 Degrees of Simulated Stereo (recorded in Cleveland, London and Brussels) doesn’t document this lineup — it dates mostly from the band’s earliest days and features spellbinding, brutal versions of classics like “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” “The Modern Dance,” “My Dark Ages” and “Heart of Darkness.”
Drummer Scott Krauss, er, bailed before the release of Song of the Bailing Man, and his replacement, Anton Fier (the Cleveland native had briefly played in an early incarnation of Ubu, concurrent with his tenure in confrontational art combo X-Blank-X). Fier’s lighter, jazzier playing sets the tone for an album that, for all its Euro-prog iconoclasm, never quite ignites. After a disastrous US tour, the band fell apart, with Krauss and bassist Tony Maimone focusing their energies on Home and Garden (a studio aggregation, led by guitarist Jim Jones, that was invested with rustic Anglophilia) and Thomas actively embarked on a solo career. The first chapter in the Ubu story is neatly summarized on Terminal Tower, an annotated collection of eleven essential tracks, highlighted by the hard-to-find “Lonesome Cowboy Dave” and “Untitled” (an alternate take on “The Modern Dance”).
As a solo artist, Thomas is a song stylist in the truest sense of the word. On his first solo album, his lyrics and unusual compositions bring strangeness out of the mundane — imparting magic to everyday objects and activities — aided by an eclectic bunch: Richard Thompson, Anton Fier, Chris Cutler, Eddie Thornton, Philip Moxham and others. Each demonstrates hitherto unimagined aspects of their talents, and Thomas’ otherworldly voice — animal noises transmuted into human speech — has never been more expressive. A high point of Thomas’ avant-garde folk-blues-jazz-rock cultural synthesis.
Variations on a Theme, which prominently features Richard Thompson, again mixes a bit of everything — including country, jazz and blues — into Thomas’ own unique style. Only two tracks on this musically sedate, almost “normal”-sounding record recall Pere Ubu’s general looniness. Throughout, Thomas demonstrates genuine fascination with his subject matter, as well as an invariably novel perspective. A good follow-up, and one indicative of enormous artistic reach.
Winter Comes Home — which gives front cover billing to ex-Henry Cows Cutler and Lindsay Cooper — mixes intellectual stand-up comedy with winning performances, all recorded live in Munich in 1982. Cooper’s bassoon perfectly suits Thomas’ tastefully strident vocal excursions. Most notable is the title track, essentially a shaggy-dog story.
Thomas reunited with Ubu bassist Tony Maimone for More Places Forever. Along with Cutler’s drums and Cooper’s one-woman woodwind section, Thomas has all the backdrop he needs to gather us into his little world and cast his spell. He displays his love for things like insects and sunshine, and in “New Broom” follows some dust on its journey. Ubu fans finally get to hear the track for which Song of the Bailing Man was titled.
The new band (re)assembled for Monster Walks the Winter Lake is almost an Ubu reunion, with Maimone joined by Allen Ravenstine on synths and Paul Hamann producing. The low-key music moves more slowly than usual, with cello and strangely played accordion often the predominant instruments; the increasingly philosophical lyrics containing recurring monster metaphors. The four-part eleven-minute title track is a real treat.
Blame the Messenger was recorded with much the same lineup that reformed Pere Ubu. One listen confirms that they must have been itching to get back together; the sound and arrangements are more a throwback to the band’s earlier recordings than any of Thomas’ previous solo work, thanks especially to Ravenstine’s electronic keyboards. The lyrical fascination this time is mostly with nature, particularly ironic when juxtaposed with such beautifully unnatural sounds. A great record.
Pere Ubu formally reformed in late 1987, but all that actually meant was a name change and inclusion of Scott Krauss in the lineup of Thomas’ most recent solo support band, the Wooden Birds. In July 1988, Thomas, Krauss, bassist Tony Maimone, synthesist Allen Ravenstine, prog-rock stalwart drummer Chris Cutler and Jim Jones released Ubu’s first new LP in six years. Sounding vital — and as futuristic as ever — The Tenement Year is a surprisingly edgy set that integrates Thomas’ loopy digressions into a noise-pop context not all that far from the band’s original concept. Although Krauss and Cutler occasionally trip over one another in mixes that tend towards muddle, tracks like the pulsing “George Had a Hat” and the cyber-romantic “We Have the Technology” resonate with Ubu’s still-potent clatter. If not entirely successful (two drummers is one too many; Ravenstine’s noise doodles now seem extraneous and dated), The Tenement Year builds a solid rock structure around Thomas’ whimsical fascinations.
Recorded in 1978, ’80 and ’81, One Man Drives While the Other Man Screams (its title taken from a grocery-store jingle that penetrated the collective Cleveland consciousness for years) makes a fine companion piece to the prior Ubu live set, reprising some of the finer moments from the Dub Housing era, as well as a rare rendition of the gorgeous single track, “Heaven.” A hefty portion of the 13 tracks recorded in London (1978, with Tom Herman), Cleveland (1980, with Mayo Thompson) and Germany (1981, ditto) are from Dub Housing (“Navvy,” “Ubu Dance Party,” “Codex,” etc.); the record has a relaxed feel and (on CD, at least) extremely clear sound.
Using The Tenement Year‘s prettier tunes as a rough sketch, Ubu put itself in Pet Shop Boys/New Order producer Stephen Hague’s competent hands for half of Cloudland and delivered a big surprise: wonderful pop. Jettisoning such inconvenient sonic baggage as vocal disharmony, chaos and electronic graffiti, the album offers an ingenious subversion of classic Top 40 as run through Ubu’s unique wringer. While Hague’s wholesale deletion of the band’s more anarchic ancillary noise might disturb purists, the overall effect is mighty compelling. “Breath” and “Race the Sun” appropriate simple chord structures from such familiar sources as Buddy Holly pop and surf-rock, but unlikely bridges, tantalizing lyrics and Thomas’ moderate warble make them modern and magical. “Waiting for Mary” and “Bus Called Happiness” (Hague’s other efforts) are even better, matching catchy choruses to adventurous verse arrangements. On his tracks, longtime Ubu studio chum Paul Hamann helps steer the group back into temperate weirdness, resulting in a demento version of “Sloop John B” that surfaces in “Nevada!” and the recitation and sickly chanting of “Flat.” As unpalatable as this open-armed album may be to fans of challenging music, Cloudland is quite obviously a masterpiece.
The band underwent another sea change prior to the release of Worlds in Collision. Ravenstine left to pursue a career in aviation and was replaced by former Captain Beefheart sideman Eric Drew Feldman. Cutler also departed, and Ubu decided one drummer would suffice. Produced by Gil Norton, Worlds in Collision furthers the pop propensities of Cloudland with such unabashed singalongs as “I Hear They Smoke the Barbecue” (a single of which was actually released under the alias the Modern Solution in order to circumvent Ubu’s art-house vibe). Although wistfully pretty tracks like “Oh Catherine” impart an old-fashioned charm to the album, the less-than-inspired rock numbers show the band to be in desperate need of a recharge.
There’s considerably more creative juice flowing through Story of My Life, the most stripped-down Pere Ubu album to date. With the departure of Feldman (who joined Frank Black’s band), Jones, doing double duty on guitar and keyboards, assumes the role of primary soundscaper. He plays the part masterfully on classically disorienting songs like “Heartbreak Garage” and “Louisiana Train Wreck,” on which his serpentine, stinging guitar leads are totally enrapturing. Thomas sounds rejuvenated as well, as he navigates the whimsical waters of songs like “Postcard” (a surreal world tour taken in three-by-five snapshots). Midway through a tour supporting the album, Maimone left (to join They Might Be Giants, among other things) and was replaced by Michele Temple, a member of Cleveland’s Vivians who had played with Krauss and Jones in Home and Garden.
As Pere Ubu reached its 20th anniversary as a band — a feat in itself, given Thomas’ assertion that the band initially planned to split up after recording just one single — it returned to indie-dom for the release of Ray Gun Suitcase, a wildly eclectic, captivatingly meandering set that harks back to its early ’80s incarnation. That has something to do with the synth and theremin playing of Robert Wheeler, whose futuro-swirl approach is most evident on songs like “Red Sky” and the furious “My Friend Is a Stooge for the Media Priests,” not to mention Thomas’ most visceral performances in years. With the departure of Krauss — the new drummer is Cleveland stalwart Scott Benedict — Pere Ubu may appear to bear little resemblance to the band of old, but the spirit most assuredly remains willing. Folly of Youth See Dee + is a CD-ROM: besides the visuals, the disc contains Ray Gun Suitcase‘s “Folly of Youth,” demos for two other songs from it and a “jam” entitled “Ball n Chain.”
In a substantial expansion from the EP format, the second Ubu release to be titled Datapanik in the Year Zero is a deluxe five-CD box of the first coming of Ubu, containing The Modern Dance, Dub Housing, New Picnic Time, The Art of Walking and Song of the Bailing Man, plus an hour of previously unreleased live recordings and an entire disc of Ubu-related rarities.
As chronicler of — and prime mover in — the groundbreaking Cleveland scene in the early ’70s, Peter Laughner (who died in 1977 at the age of 24) ranks as one of underground rock’s true unsung heroes. Though Lou Reed was undeniably his major influence (particularly as a vocalist), Laughner’s work can scarcely be narrowcast as mere tribute. The self-titled album, gleaned from a brace of demos and live recordings, reveals his folkier side, with nods to Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (“Rag Baby”) and Richard Thompson (on the melancholy “Baudelaire”). The two-record Take the Guitar Player for a Ride is much more exhaustive (and exhausting): from the sorrowful epic “Amphetamine” (a line from which gives the album its title) to a hushed version of Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues” (recorded the night before his death), it’s a detailed map of a one-way route down to the crossroads. The CD has three fewer songs than the vinyl.
Rocket From the Tombs, alternately “led” by Laughner, Thomas and Stiv Bators (then merely the ex-lead singer of Youngstown glitter bozos Mother Goose), kept the flames of Midwest stun-rock raging through the early ’70s. Life Stinks, taken from a local radio broadcast, showcases the band at its best, melding searing shock guitar (by Laughner and Gene O’Connor, who later copped the nom de punque Cheetah Chrome and became a Dead Boy) with spaced-out Germanic doodle on tracks like “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” “Life Stinks” (both Laughner compositions that would grace the Ubu catalogue) and “Ain’t It Fun” (a future Dead Boys staple). The lovingly, exhaustively annotated set (which comes with a bonus 7-inch featuring “Transfusion” co-written by Laughner and his ex-wife, Cleveland poet/musician Charlotte Pressler) also includes a bevy of lesser-known tracks that attest to the band’s intuitive futurism. Anyone attempting to divine the roots of punk will certainly have their rod set awhirl here.
Prior to his stint in Ubu, Jones played with a number of seminal bands, ranging from the psychedelically inclined Mirrors (which survived from 1974 well into the ’90s, although Jones split in the first decade) to the aforementioned Home and Garden. The most inspirational, however, might have been the Easter Monkeys, a foursome that laid post-Birthday Party dementia atop gnarled Midwestern spazz-rock rhythms. The posthumous Splendor of Sorrow — released several years after the band’s implosion — is highlighted by frontman Chris Yarmock’s unhinged rants on songs like “Take Another Pill” and “Monkey See, Monkey Do.” The id’s all right.
Tripod Jimmie, an Erie, Pennsylvania trio led by former Ubu guitarist Tom Herman, inhabits a world of hypertense vocals and simple, rough, aggressive rock noise — an underground ’80s revision of the power trio concept. Recorded “live on the shore of Lake Erie,” Long Walk‘s eleven numbers display traces of Television, Ubu and Talking Heads — all essentially similarly minded organizations. Powerful and disquieting.
With better production and playing, A Warning to All Strangers organizes the trio’s music into a concise attack that occasionally resembles the Minutemen. As diverse as it is emotionally intense, this anxiety-ridden collection (song titles are given under the heading “List of Worries”) lurches from a barking contest to a James Brown funk breakdown to gibberish without skipping a groove. Over the rhythm section’s propulsive chug, Herman’s thrusting guitar chords and edgily confident shout-singing emboldens the bizarrely fascinating lyrics, making Tripod Jimmie’s concerns seem very real and urgent.
Jim Jones died in early 2008.